Zen and the Art of Being Chris Braak
I am, and have often been, fascinated by the idea of self-improvement. I know what you’re thinking, obviously. You’re thinking, “Chris, that’s nonsense! How could you possibly need to improve yourself?”
And you’re right, of course. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the idea of self-improvement in a sort of abstract way, the way I might think about what it would be like to have my own spaceship, or to be a velociraptor (answers: more trouble than it’s worth; awesome).
In the intersests of mild intellectual curiosity, I discovered Zen, and became intrigued. At first, quite naturally, I thought it was stupid: reincarnation, satisfaction, non-desire–all of these seemed like the kinds of things a religious elite would use to prevent peasant uprisings. But I read some books and, after having decided I knew everything worth knowing about the subject, I concluded that Zen wasn’t so bad, after all.
On Sunday I went to my first zazen session. See, the way that Zen works is that there’s no real orthodoxy: no precise system of things that you’re supposed to think in order to be a Zen Buddhist. It is, rather, a system of orthopraxis: a precise thing that you are supposed to do in order to be a Zen Buddhist. In that respect, it’s really impossible to be a non-practicing Zen Buddhist–if you don’t do it, you aren’t it.
But I digress. Zazen is the practice that Zen Buddhists engage in. It consists of three parts: sit on a cushion. Stare at the wall. Don’t think.
It’s harder than it sounds.
What I began to notice, while I was sitting, that whenever my mind wandered off into thinking territory, it always went in the same direction: me, considering how I was going to explain the experience to someone else. I think this is natural; I’ve kind of set myself up as a writer, and a writer’s job is, basically, to mediate experience with language. But the principle of Zen is that talking about Zen is like fishing in a dry riverbed, or peeing into the wind, or other important metaphors. Basically: when you’re thinking about Zen, you’re not doing Zen.
Language is pretty vitally important. I’ve long believed that civilization is built on a foundation of language, and no one has yet proved me wrong. So, how could I want to engage in practice that eschews langauge? Moreover, how can I succeed at a practice that runs antithetical to the very way my mind works (i.e.: languagey)?
Setting aside the obvious question of how anything could be worthwhile if I wasn’t already good at it (it can’t), I think there’s a fair distinction to be made between “vitally important” and “universally important.” That is, civilization would fall apart without language, but that doesn’t mean that language is the only thing that matters to the individual. And because language is so important, and (for many of us) so easy, it’s particularly dangerous that we might slip into a private world insulated from reality by this inestimable medium.
As to how I could excel at it–well, there are basically two kinds of Zazen. One is “concentration practice,” in which you purposefully attempt to screen out external and internal stimuli, and one is “awareness practice” in which you permit, but do not dwell on, those stimuli. Language is useful in both cases.
Concentration pratice bears an awful lot of similarity to the esoteric meditation that uses mantras for its practice. You chant the mantra over and over and over, and because you can basically only think one thing at a time, your head never fills up with new thoughts, because the mantra keeps them out. The mantra itself rapidly becomes nonsense which, according to some people (see Grant Morrison; Aleister Crowley) is the point: the meaning of the mantra was irrelevant in the first place. All that matters is its function as a sort of “thought-shield.” Some people (see Austin Osman Spare, all those crazy Hindu guys) believe that the meaning of the mantra is absorbed at a subconscious level, and so mantras can be used to give you psychological powers–or, at the very least, that you should pick mantras whose meanings you agree with.
But this particular zazen practice was awareness practice, which uses language in a whole different way. Here, the idea is to let thoughts and feelings and things bubble up internally, name them, and just let the go on their way. It’s like wrapping up your thoughts in a little language balloon and letting them float off. This can be difficult, because langauge tends to propagate language, and so the urge to overindulge must be avoided. However, with continued practice, the need to name things diminishes, because the number of things that need to be named diminishes.
You could call this state any one of a number of things: a harmony of the mind’s inner life with the outer world, a harmony between conscious and unconscious minds. Whatever. The point is that it’s a desirable condition.
I think it’s desirable for both a basic quality-of-life reason, and for a practical self-improvement reason.
In the first place, taking care with the smallest things is essential in order to achieve larger things. As internet prophet Jeffrey Rowland once said: if you leave the house and your shoes don’t fit, or you think you look dorky in that poncho, you’re never going to have a good day.
In the second place, there are basically two barriers to being good at something: one is pointlessness (when the language instinct hops in and says, “What the hell am I doing this for?”), and one is boredom. Therefore, if you can do the most boring and pointless thing in the world (sitting and staring at a wall) for as long as you want, you can be good at anything. No matter how boring guitar practice gets, it will never be as boring as SITTING AND STARING AT A WALL.
Now, I’m going to continue this–not because I feel like I need to improve myself spiritually, or anything, but because of the fact that I am deeply curious by nature. At some point, I will probably give up on it, because I have nothing that even resembles self-discipline. Fortunately, I don’t need self-discipline, because that’s only useful for people who aren’t already great.